I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:
Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”
And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.
The most divisive question facing the early Church was whether it was necessary to observe the entire Mosaic Law—including circumcision and the dietary laws—in order to be a disciple of Christ.
Today, some of the most divisive questions facing the Church concern our response to same-sex attracted Christians and whether to bless same-sex marriages. In response to these divisions, some have suggested that the Apostles’ decision to set aside circumcision and the dietary laws provides a precedent for today: that we should set aside traditional interpretations of the Bible which forbid homosexual acts, and bless same-sex marriages.
In this post, I want to question a simplistic way that the New Testament narrative is applied to contemporary debates. I want to point out first, that the authority claims in the two cases are quite different; and second, that the New Testament approach to sexual ethics is very different from its approach to circumcision and the dietary laws.
At Spiritual Friendship and in other venues, we often discuss questions of “disorder” and “sin” relating to sexuality (for a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here). Others have written about similar topics, such as Denny Burk’s exploration of whether same-sex attraction is sinful.
In all these writings, I see several different categorizations that are in play. I think it is helpful, for the purposes of discussion, to explicitly consider three ways to categorize aspects of sexuality: not disordered, disordered but not sinful, and sinful. Not everyone will agree with me on which aspects of sexuality fit into which category, but I think that explicitly considering these categories is a helpful framework for discussion. I will give a brief description of each, as well as some of my current understanding of what fits in each category and how others disagree with me.
Two years ago, as I was just beginning to think more critically about my faith and sexuality, I attended a wedding. It has been interesting to revisit the memorialized emotions that accompanied the ceremony, to examine the well-worn paths down which my uncertain thoughts routinely fled when confronted by longing and sorrow.
Weddings used to primarily remind me of all I couldn’t have, my easily startled psyche darting away from the encroaching shadows of jealousy and isolation. I would think, over and over, “I want this. I still want this.” There was always a bitter ache, a subcutaneous anxiety. Pain threatened my convictions and wove itself into every sensation. Unsurprisingly, I imagined that watching my best friend get married would be a similar experience, just exponentially moreso.
I was wrong.
Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.
While the majority of voices here are from single and celibate same-sex attracted Christians, it remains important to maintain heterosexual marriage as a viable vocation for some who are attracted to the same sex. As Ron Belgau notes, the narrative of orientation change has often been over-sold in Christian circles. However, as a response, many have dismissed heterosexual marriage as a impossibility for any same-sex attracted Christians (be those attractions closer the gay or bi portion of the spectrum). In the face of these extremes, we have sought to offer a more nuanced approach to the possibility of heterosexual marriage.
This post provides a roundup of some of the ideas writers at Spiritual Friendship have shared as we have reflected on what is sometimes known as mixed-orientation marriage (MoM).
Last year, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” With a title like this coming from the pen of a former editor of First Things, Bottum’s article was almost certain to generate voluminous commentary. And it did.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”
A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a beautiful video on Facebook about a couple that have been married for 50 years. The wife has Alzheimer’s Disease, so the husband also needs to be her permanent caregiver. “From the moment she gets up to the moment she goes to bed, I have to do everything,” he says: “clean her teeth, shower, dress her.” However, he tells us: “I don’t count it as a burden to have to care for her … I count it as a great privilege to care for this woman that I’ve loved all of these years and continue to love … She has done so much for me, over all of these years; now she can’t, but I can, and I can return her love.”
When I first saw it I was struck because it reminded me of another video that I’d seen several years previously, about a same-sex couple who had been together for 54 years. Bill was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and had to be cared for by his partner, John. “He needs a little more help and I’m glad I can do it,” John says. “It’s a real privilege. I call it payback time. I’m paying him back for all he did for me from day one.”
Fr. James Martin – a Jesuit priest who has written quite eloquently on LGBT issues a number of times before – has a column in the latest edition of America magazine, “Simply Loving,” in which he asks why “so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church” despite the fact that most Catholics claim not to hate gay and lesbian people.
Fr. Martin suggests that one reason – aside from the obvious fact that a lot of LGBT people don’t agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual acts – is that it is very rare to hear many Catholics “say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin.”
The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics – but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.
When some of my gay friends talk about the struggles of living celibate lives, they are occasionally told by their more progressive friends that they should “just go get married.” I suspect that the speaker believes he is being compassionate, caring, and sympathetic. But he’s not. And neither are the churches who preach this simplistic message to gay Christians seeking to live celibate lives.
For a variety of reasons, many Christians (gay and straight) decide not to marry. Unfortunately, the unmarried life can be very isolating in our culture. Americans have a practice of treating marriage as the only (or at least the primary) means of intimacy and interdependency with significant and lasting obligations.